A federal appeals court on Friday overturned a ruling that kept under wraps a limited number of documents related to a lawsuit Congress brought against the Justice Department as it probed the botched Fast and Furious gunrunning operation.
The ruling by a three-judge panel in the D.C. Circuit sends the case back to a lower court for clarification of an “ambiguous” seal order the Obama administration claimed prevented them from disclosing the documents.
The conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch had sought documents related to settlement negotiations for the lawsuit brought by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform against the Justice Department over the operation, in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives let guns be sold to traffickers in the hopes of cracking down on Mexican cartels.
Although the two parties did not settle the case — it’s still playing out in court — the Obama administration identified eight documents, or 32 pages in all, that were responsive to the public records request. But they declined to hand over the documents, saying the requested records were “subject to court-imposed nondisclosure requirements.”
Judicial Watch sued for the records, but U.S. District Judge Richard Leon rejected the group’s arguments and sided with the government.
Judge Leon ruled that a statement made by U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, as she presided over the oversight committee’s case, was an instruction for both parties to “keep the substance of their settlement discussions private” and therefore supported the argument that there was a court-imposed restriction on disclosure of information.
The comment in question by Judge Jackson, made in reference to settlement talks ongoing at the time, was “I don’t know what you said. I don’t want to know.”
“Judge Jackson’s statement, ‘I don’t want to know,’ clearly bars the parties from divulging the contents of their settlement discussions only to her; a broader bar, if any, would have to be inferred for it is not explicit,” wrote Judge Douglas Ginsburg in Friday’s ruling.
The government will now have to further clarify the true meaning behind Judge Jackson’s comment.
This judicial statement that seemed off the cuff, was translated into an order to seal records,” said Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton. “It’s a silly argument and you see this panel rejected it.”
As the Judicial Watch case is remanded, the underlying lawsuit brought by the oversight committee remains resolved.
The Justice Department has turned over tens of thousands of pages of documents about the ATF operation to Congress, but lawmakers continued to seek additional records that the department argued it was entitled to withhold.
Judge Jackson in January rejected the Justice Department’s assertion that disclosure of some internal records from the Fast and Furious operation can be blocked through executive privilege and she ordered the DOJ to turn over a cache of remaining documents.
Those documents are now required to be turned over by April 8.
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